Flashback to 1995. I was living in South San Francisco, CA and attending San Francisco State University, working towards my Bachelor of Arts in Communication. My brother in law, who had been introduced to homebrewing a few years earlier, got me interested and, if I remember correctly, gave me my first, basic kit. You know the one: 2 plastic buckets, an airlock, some strainer bags, a big spoon, a stovetop brewing kettle and a book (The New Complete Joy of Homebrewing by Charlie Papazian - a great first brewing book).
A Basic Homebrewing Kit
A trip to my local homebrew supply shop for some malt extract, a few specialty grains for steeping, some hops and a packet of yeast and I was on my way. Like most homebrewers, I started out brewing on my kitchen stovetop with malt extract (usually in syrup or dried powder form). This process involves creating a concentrated wort (think of wort as, basically, beer that hasn't been fermented yet), and then adding that concentrated wort to a volume of water to make up the total batch size (usually 5 gallons).
I brewed with extract for a couple of years, until I reached a point where I wanted to have more control over the brewing process and the flavor of the finished product. Don't get me wrong, some great beers can still be made with malt extract, but I wanted to take the next step and go all grain.
The Switch To All Grain:
By now it was 1998. I had moved from the San Francisco area to Issaquah, WA, just outside of Seattle and I decided it was time to take the plunge and change from brewing 5 gallon batches with malt extract to brewing 10 gallon all grain batches. All grain means that no malt extract is used. The beer is made 'from scratch', using just water, grains, hops and yeast.
In order to make this switch, I had to buy or build a new brewing system. My kitchen stovetop and little 4 gallon stock pot would no longer cut it. So I started out obtaining all the equipment I would need for all-grain brewing: A couple of large stock pots, a 10-gallon drink cooler for a mash tun (where the grains are mixed with water), propane burners, a sparge arm (a device to srpinkle/spray water over the grains in the mash tun, so the wort can be collected in the boil kettle), etc. etc.
I would also need a brewing 'rack'; a way/place to mount my propane burners, hold the hot liquor tank (i.e. a vessel for heating hot water), the mash tun and the boil kettle. I didn't want to have to spend extra money on pumps and valves, so I decided that my system would be gravity-fed. That is, a stepped-down system with the hot liquor tank on the highest level, the mash tun on the middle level and the boil kettle on the lowest level. This would allow gravity to facilitate moving everything from the hot liquor tank through the mash tun and on into the boil kettle.
My Custom Made Brewing Rack
Lucky for me, I had a friend who was a welder. Using what was basically scrap 1" square steel tubing from the shop he worked at, he built me a three-tier rack to the measurements I asked for. I had him make it so that the lowest level was still far enough above the ground to place a vessel below to collect the wort for fermentation.
Since I was living in an apartment at the time, I setup this new brewing rack in my parents garage, who happened to live in the next town. Over the next few years, I got quite a bit of use out of my 10 gallon system, brewing some wonderful beers for myself and my friends and even supplying two different types of beer as well as a root beer for a friend's wedding (and then, later, beers and soda for my own wedding in 2001).
Unfortunately, just a few years later, my parents sold their house and moved away to Arizona. I was still living in an apartment at the time, so I had no good place to setup or even store my brewing system, so it went into a self storage unit, along with all my other brewing equipment. That was a little over seven years ago. That was when, for far too long, my brewing stopped.
At first I really missed brewing, but having no way to use my all grain system and being unwilling to step backwards to brewing on my stovetop, I let it slip away. Over time, other interests took it's place and for a while I totally forgot how much I had enjoyed brewing and beer culture in general.
During this time, I spent several years as a video game journalist (primarily for Xbox and Xbox 360 games). From 2004 through 2009, I reviewed dozens of games, attended gaming conventions and other special events, and even spent nearly three years as a moderator on the official Xbox.com forums. By late 2009, I had been running my own gaming journalism website for a couple of years and I was enjoying the video game culture, but something in me began to start missing brewing. I had been away from it for far too long.
By now it was almost 2010 and my wife, Lynn, and I had been living in our house for about five years. Even though I was starting to get the itch to brew again, I didn't follow through at first. I kept making excuses, the big one being that we had too much stuff in the garage, so I just didn't have the room. Like I said, it was an excuse, but not one I could use forever, because over time, we got that garage pretty cleaned out.
Back To the Brew:
Fast forward to mid-February of this year. Brouwer's Cafe's 9th Annual Hard Liver Barleywine Festival was approaching. I had attended it the past three years, along with several other beer events and festivals in and around the Seattle area, and as I was thinking about this I began to re-discover that my passion for beer went beyond just enjoying drinking it.
I missed brewing and beer culture. I still wasn't quite ready to brew, but I did decide it was time to start focusing my passion again, so I started this very blog. I was testing myself. Could I keep up with the blog? Could my passion for great beer overcome my laziness this time and get my butt in gear? Apparently so! I decided that, no matter what, I would keep up with the blog. Not only that, I would start working on obtaining my BJCP Certification.
I Had To Brew!
By mid-March, after several more blog posts and learning more about how involved/intense the BJCP program would be, I couldn't stand it any longer. I had to brew. The weekend of March 19th-20th was arriving, and I was going to brew, no matter what! My system wasn't ready, I needed a few new pieces of brewing equipment, etc. I didn't care. I was going to brew! And so I did. The India Pale Ale I brewed that day is now in kegs in my beer fridge, and I enjoyed the first pint of it last night (a bit 'young', but still pretty good!)
The Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery:
Also, during this time, I learned about a new venture happening in Seattle. The 'Fying Bike' Cooperative brewery. What is Flying Bike? It is Seattle's first and only coop brewery. In other words, a cooperative, where individuals can each buy into the coop and be part owners. This is the first time a coop brewery has been tried like this in Seattle and it's only the 2nd of its kind in the nation.
Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery
There were 9 original 'founding' members who came up with the idea for the Flying Bike Coop. I learned about it shortly afterwards and recently became coop member #12 of the first of what we'll be calling the 'Thirsty 300'. The first 300 coop members of Flying Bike (The Thirsty 300) will be considered the 'founding members', and will have special privileges reserved only for them as the coop continues to grow. Please go HERE to learn more about Flying Bike and perhaps join us. You still have time to be a founding member of Flying Bike Coop Brewery. Don't let this chance pass you by!
The Opportunity To Judge Knocks:
Around the same time I decided to start working towards my BJCP certification, I decided I should also renew my membership in the American Homebrewers Association (AHA - closely affiliated with the BJCP), and I started posting on the forums at homebrewersassociation.org. Less than two weeks later I was leaving work to have a beer at Coopers Alehouse in Seattle and I ran into a member of the forums from homebrewersassociation.org.
After talking for a while, he learned of my interest in obtaining my BJCP cetfitication and, as luck would have it, he knew someone who was helping orgainze the judging for Round 1 of the National Homebrew Competition, Northwest Region. The judging was actually happeing that very evening and the next day (Saturday). I did post about this experience already, HERE, but let me take you through it a bit more in-depth.
I didn't know if my friend from the forums, Tom, was serious or what to expect, so I woke up the next morning (Saturday) expecting it to be much like any normal Saturday. I was wrong. Tom had sent me an email a bit after midnight, telling me that he had conated his friend and that, if I wanted to be a judge that day, I was more than welcome. This was about 7:15AM. Judges were to start checking in at 8:30AM at Pyramid Alehouse in Seattle's Sodo district - about 20 miles away. Now, at this time, I was still half asleep and was wearing only a t-shirt and some sweat pants.
After quickly replying to a few more posts on the brewing forums, I headed upstairs to jump in the shower and get ready. My first real opportunity for gaining some real-World practical judging experience for my BJCP Certification had arrived, and I wasn't going to miss it! I printed out a few notes, the BJCP beer judging guidelines and a few beer scoresheets for reference and jumped in the car. I made it to Pyramid just before 8:30AM and went upstairs to check in.
The BJCP Certification Program I'm Studying Towards
Things got under way at around 9:00AM. Judges were paired up, and they did a very good job of pairing experienced judges with novice judges like myself. I was paired up with BJCP Certified Judge Mike Brown (who is about to become a National Judge and was last year's WA Homebrewer of the Year). Not a bad way to start out.
We proceeded to taste, judge the beers, allowing about 10 minutes for each beer judged. For each beer, the judge must inspect the bottle, then judge the beer on aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel and overall impression, noting the specific aspects of each category in detail. I made sure to have Mike look over my beer score sheets for the first few beers I judged, to ensure I was on the right track with my comments. He approved.
I judged eight beers in all that day before we broke for lunch, where I had the opportunity to discuss judging with other judges who had been at it for much longer. I gained some valuable advice and insights, and was excited to start to get to know a few people in this new World of beer judging. I left the 'mini best of show' and round 1 finalist judging to the more experienced judges and picked up information on my next judging opportunity; which will be at the Puget Sound Pro-Am, held at Larry's Warehouse Brewing Supply in Kent, WA.
The Future Is Bright (And Full of Beer!):
So, in just over a month's time, I have jumped back into brewing and beer culture with both feet! I'm brewing again (and have a strawberry cider in the works right now), I have joined the Flying Bike Cooperative Brewery as a founding member, I'm studying towards my BJCP Certification and I'm taking advantage of the beer juding opportunites that are coming my way.
With everything I have going on, it's going to be an exciting year. Please keep following my posts and progress, and you'll continue to learn more about brewing, beer juding and getting a new brewery off the ground!
Drink responsibly and stay safe out there.